Monday, October 25, 2010

Permission: Marion Brown's genius

The Marion Brown tributes are piling up and they are fantastic, especially the personal reminiscences by Lars Gotrich and John Rogers, a great rare-record round-up courtesy of Destination: Out and Clifford Allen's typically thorough interview.

I have been on a Brown kick since the sad news hit, and I have to say that as much as I respect the thematically ambitious material that comes later, nothing hits me like his wordless mid-’60s albums, specifically those resulting from an extraordinary hot streak spanning October through December of 1966: Why Not?, Juba-Lee and Three for Shepp.

It sounds strange, but as a dedicated free-jazz fan, I'm always craving order. Go as far out as you want, but work your ass off on the organizational aspects: bandbuilding, composition, arrangement, solo lengths, sideman deployment, etc. If you're putting your name on a record, exercise some control. These records fulfill said criteria in such thrilling ways. For sheer organized-adventure quotient they are the equal of the mid-’60s Blue Note dates that more or less sum up my personal jazz ideal. (I always think of the holy trinity as Jackie McLean's One Step Beyond, Grachan Moncur's Evolution and Andrew Hill's Point of Departure.) The endlessly delightful romp known as "Spooks" (Three for Shepp) sums up these records' genius. There's freedom here, but there's also so much much economy and so much joy. These are songs you want to hear sung again and again, not merely groundbreaking expressions.

You also really hear each musician featured on these albums, not as a faint blare within a din, but as a true voice. Right now I'm checking out the aforementioned Grachan Moncur soloing on "Fortunato" (also on Three for Shepp), and I'm loving how much space he gets to stretch out and lament as he so loved to do. And Dave Burrell caressing chords underneath, with stunningly sensitive color from Beaver Harris, really one of the finest drummers of the period. (On Why Not? you hear similar sensitivity with different hues courtesy of Stanley Cowell and Rashied Ali.) It's been said time and again that Brown's is not your usual free jazz, that his music showed a greater sensitivity and openness than that of many of his peers. I don't want to drive this characterization into the ground, but I have to echo it here, simply because it's true. I like how Destination: Out put it: "Above all else, Marion Brown’s music insisted on communicating. It wanted to forge deep connections." You feel that when you're listening to these three records I've mentioned—Brown reaching out not just to his listeners but, crucially, to his collaborators as well.

"Play as long as you want; get out what you need to get out," he seems to say to his sidemen on brilliant performances such as Juba-Lee's "Iditus" (streaming at Destination: Out), which features one of the best Alan Shorter solos I've ever taken in, not to mention an awesome turn from Bennie Maupin, whom I've never really heard in such a classic-free-jazz context. Moncur is here too, and Harris, and Burrell—a real all-star team of the period. And of course the leader, just another deep, true voice in a chorus of them, but also the crucial guiding hand that—as Bill Dixon was also doing around the same time—said, "It's okay to slow down, to draw forth the feelings underneath the frenzy." That kind of permission is why these records stand out and truly endure, right up to now.

P.S. Another essential Marion Brown record is Reeds ’N Vibes, a duet session with Gunter Hampel. Poetic, spare, reflective improvisation.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Work and the Word: Charles Burchfield at the Whitney

Song of the Telegraph Poles, Charles Burchfield, painted 1917–1952

"Listen long to the singing of the telephone poles. It sounds more weird and beautiful by moonlight… Each pole has a distinct tone. A steady throbbing sound—the poles, once trees, still are full of life which is expressed in this pulsating sound. Seems a voice from the center of the earth."—Burchfield, 1914

First: If you (1) happen to be reading this today (Saturday, October 16, 2010) or tomorrow (Sunday the 17th), and you (2) live in NYC or nearby and you (3) haven't seen the Charles Burchfield exhibit ("Heat Waves in a Swamp") that's up at the Whitney, please try to make it over there. The show closes end of day tomorrow, and according to a tour guide I overheard, these works will then be cooling out in storage for a few years.

The paintings themselves are unreal. Many of them proto-psychedelic nature scenes (created from the 1910s through the ’60s, in the vicinities of either Salem, Ohio or Buffalo, NY), where the actual stuff that's depicted—trees, rivers, stars, houses, telegraph poles, etc.—shares space with these kind of aura squiggles or visual vibrations. It's as though everything in the paintings were quivering and radiating humming sound and gleaming light. A very strange sensation to look and almost half-hear sound, and I'm not sure I can really compare it to anything.

But there's a whole other aspect to this show that helped solidify my sense that it was one of the most impressive and enveloping museum shows I've ever seen. I don't have the data in front of me (re: actual pages logged, years begun and ended, notebooks filled), but basically, Charles Burchfield kept meticulous journals his whole life and reflected ceaselessly on his work. You know that feeling of museum fatigue, when you've read your 30th wall text and you wish the curator would just shut up so you can experience the paintings on their own terms? Well, there's really no sense of that at all here, because a good 70 percent of the text in this show is by Burchfield himself.

I'm not enough of an art-historian to know how common this is, but in, say, music, there are tons of creators who talk eloquently about their work—in interviews, biographies, etc.—but not a whole lot who do so just as a matter of course, without being asked to. (Incidentally, I think this is one reason why Ethan Iverson, a true musician/critic, seems like such a blessing.) Burchfield's commentary on his work is every bit as sensitive and wondrous and insightful as the paintings themselves. To see an image like the one at the top of this blog post and then to glance over and read something like the text reproduced under it… It was like having your mind blown twice each time you walked up to a new work. I must've looked over at Laal in stunned, delighted disbelief something like 15 or 20 times.

And crucially: the marvel at coming upon an artist so intensely analytical and reflective and self-critical in method and so natural and visionary in creation. You see these paintings and they look like the breath of God—the result of some highly attuned man speaking in visual tongues. And then you see these sketches, dissecting the works endlessly; paintings completed in youth and then dug back out in middle age and augmented with huge new sections; and notes-to-self that seem mystical but are really just straightforwardly instructive, like: "Astonishment and wonder are the keynotes of this picture—Eliminate all else." And even, as my friend Kyle put it, actual emotional "glyphs," a pictorial vocabulary, i.e., weird little shapes corresponding to things like "Imbecility" or "Morbidness (Evil)" and gathered together as "Conventions for Abstract Thoughts."

It all seems almost superhuman—to both do and reflect, more or less in real time. Often these two pursuits look a lot like opposites: You're either doing or you're thinking about the doing. And that's why critics and journalists and scholars and whatever else you want to call them flock to art, and why, at least some of the time, they're welcomed (or at least tolerated!) by artists and enthusiasts, because they make explicit things about the work that the creator might not have had the time or the inclination to point out.

But man, to see that intermediary process completely obviated? It's like Martin Luther's whole "Abolish all clergy and deal directly with the Word" idea. That's what you get to do here: deal directly with the Word, alongside—of course-the Work. Because Burchfield had enough juice in him for both activities, the making and the telling, and the effect is rather mindblowing.

P.S. Metal fans: Look alive. There are quite a few paintings in this show that brilliantly reckon with blackness and storms and scary old houses and the terror of night, and if you're anything like me, you'll practically hear Sunn O))) reverberating through the museum. The texts contain many meditations on evil and sinister-ness and very metallic observations such as "I put into the sun all the devastating destroying power of that 'star' that I feel on a March sap day." YES.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Gleeful exorcism: Corrosion of Conformity at Highline Ballroom

Left to right: Woody Weatherman, Mike Dean, Reed Mullin

At last night's Corrosion of Conformity show, the reunion debate finally flatlined in my mind. (Ben Ratliff hilariously called foul nearly a year ago, but this is the kind of thing that each listener must rule for his/her self.) There's just no judging one of these things objectively, simply because the main factor at play is one's own prior experience with a given band.

There have been times, perhaps at Time Out—where reunions can seem, to those of us doing our best to make sense of the rock landscape, like a depressingly all-consuming news topic—when I've bitched about the trend. But let's be fair here: Were it not for the reunion bug, I would not have ever had the opportunity to see Slint (incredible) nor the classic Jesus Lizard lineup (the good kind of ridiculous) play live. Nor, to get to the point, would I have seen Corrosion of Conformity in its original incarnation—the trio of Mike Dean, Woody Weatherman and Reed Mullin—as I did last night.

This was a band with which I had very little experience during their heyday. I was born too late to get into their early-to-mid ’80s work, and once they hit Headbanger's Ball (with "Clean My Wounds," off 1994's Deliverance—released, oddly, on the same late-September day as Chocolate and Cheese), the whole thing had turned somewhat cheeseball and it didn't really appeal to me. (Not that it necessarily would have appealed to me had it been incredible—I was still paying a lot of attention to some not-so-great music at that time.) So the news that the version of COC that recorded 1985's "classic" Animosity album was going to be recording and touring again really didn't mean much to me at all—it registered as a second chance at something I didn't care I'd missed the first time around. I was mainly at the Highline last night to hear Keelhaul (as expressed here ad nauseum, e.g., I'm completely addicted).

I had planned on sticking around to get a feel for what COC was all about, but I didn't commit in advance to weathering the full show. Once they started playing, though, it was pretty much a settled thing: I wasn't going anywhere. Their set was absolutely masterful: one of the most sheerly enjoyable sets of heavy rock I've ever witnessed. The band was famous back in the day for epitomizing punk-metal crossover (my show buddy Nick Sakes told me how an old COC logo consisted of the Black Flag bars and name, with the "Flag" crossed out and "Sabbath" written in). Apparently, this style was somewhat groundbreaking at the time, but to me, growing up when I did, punk-metal crossover was no more or less than the thing one had to do in order to do proper justice to all of one's influences. (My friends in The Crackbabies did an outstanding job at this, by the way.)

So to me, COC's approach didn't come off as novelty. What it came off as was a celebration of the last four decades of heavy rock. I didn't hear last night's set as so much Flag plus Sabbath as Sabbath plus Bad Brains. I'm not sure if I've ever heard a metal band that sounded so comfortable playing extremely slow and extremely fast, sometimes in the same song. One minute they were slithering in a holy proto-Eyehategod sludge dance and the next they were hurtling through classic lickety-split hardcore, and the shifts sounded perfectly logical. Why not play slow and fast? Seems elementary, but it's not something that every punk band dared to explore. I can't tell you how many times I've wished that there were more Bad Brains songs like "Supertouch/Shitfit", which grinds down intermittently into that world-collapsing half-time groove, and this COC set felt like the fulfillment of that dream.

The trio's chops represented the best kind of homegrown virtuosity. The tiny Dean, on bass, plucked with his fingers, like a hardcore Geezer Butler; Weatherman, a happy, hulking caveman, dwarfed his guitar and also made it sing, coaxing out its most righteously evil intervals; and Mullin simply blazed, a ball of hair who smashed like a doom-metal pro on the slow parts and grooved just as hard during the blindingly fast sections. All three players sang as well, though Reed was the star, belting in a pinched, pained whine, kind of H.R.-ish but very melodic in its own way. There were shout-along choruses (to which the spiked-leather-jacket dudes in the pit responded in kind), but overall, the vocals were way more than just dumb-punk sloganeering. Dean brought the harsh Southern soul, very much in line with so much Dixie metal I know and love (Eyehategod, Crowbar), but totally different in his approach.

As gorgeous as the music was, though—and I do mean that: it was the true Temple of Riff, exalting both the Sloth and Cheetah—what struck me most were the smiles, the sinister glee and passion on display. Mullin could not stop beaming. He seemed to me like the eternal Freaks and Geeks–era teen, fueled by suburban home-cooking topped off by candy and soda, bashing away in the basement after (or instead of—could go either way) football practice. And Dean and Weatherman each modeled the "Holy shit" face, not an arrogant, "What I'm creating is so cool" face, but a face of religious awe re: "What can be created is so cool," what the Riff can do and the power it has. If you've played heavy music, you know this well, how the process is a kind of summoning, but a happy one—a gleeful exorcism. Often the harshest music springs from the widest smiles. You bring the devil into the room, and this makes you happy.

And to achieve this, onstage last night, the three players often had to close the circle, playing to and for each other rather than the crowd, with Dean and Weatherman turning their backs not in a Miles-ian display of defiance, but simply because that's what the ceremony requires. First and foremost, you have to honor the thing in its insular form, and then you bring it out into the light for others to see. That's just how it works, and how it was working so beautifully last night. In this nearly-Halloween season, an auspicious evil borne out of sheer fun and bro-hood. The harvest of the Riff.

And so what of reunions? As Ratliff eloquently suggested in the review linked at the top of this post, there's no such thing, in general. A live show is not an accumulation of history or a reflection of a scorecard of legitimacy. It's simply one band existing at one time within one listener's mind. And if that listener feels right about it—as I really, really did last night—then that particular reunion was right, and by extension, all of them were.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Mystery man: Paul Motian and unfair expectations

A few nights ago I attended a jazz performance that happened to not involve Paul Motian. (As expressed in a previous post, I've been listening obsessively to Motian for a while now, and over the past few weeks, there's been little else that's made a significant dent.) While taking in the aforementioned concert, I found myself mentally indulging in an unabashedly subjective, even unfair appraisal, over and over again: "This is nothing like Paul Motian! Why can't these musicians behave more like him and his sidemen?"

Crazy, I know, but within bounds, because I had attended the show in a social rather than professional capacity. Isn't it strange when you're in the presence of one artist, but your mind keeps drifting back to another? You might feel ashamed, or you might, as I did, give yourself over to it and start to hone a definition of your own aesthetic values. Why is this performance not doing it for me? What do I get from this other that the one in front of me is not providing?

What I concluded was that the missing ingredient was mystery. I had become accustomed to the idea that each note of a jazz performance was a step into the unknown. An illustrious forebear called it the sound of surprise, but how much jazz really provides that? Often we're in head-solos-head territory, swinging along predictably. Anyway, Motian actually does furnish that a lot of the time. Maybe not all the time. His diffuse, rainy-day abstractions certainly have the potential to grow predictable or even oppressive. But at their best, they're all about true exploration: unhurried and absolutely confounding.

Before beginning to write this, I was listening to the title track from the 1985 Motian quintet release Jack of Clubs on the subway. There's an ensemble head; then there's a momentum-halting drum solo; then a swirl of unaccompanied Bill Frisell; then a strange duo tangle involving Jim Pepper and Joe Lovano's saxophones. [Note: Listening back, I realized that these various sections overlap, Venn-diagram-style, so it's really: Motian solo, Motian/Ed Schuller (bass), Schuller/Frisell, Frisell/Pepper.] Just to be clear: This is the first track on the record, the initial thing the listener will hear out of the gate, and what Paul Motian wanted to do, what he felt should happen, was that the quintet should atomize into free-form solos and duos. (For a great breakdown of a similarly puzzling decision, see Chuck Klosterman's Chinese Democracy review.) If you're like me, this decision confuses and delights you, maybe in large part because you have no idea why it's happening. Did the producer second-guess Motian? ("Paul, baby, you know I think you're great, but maybe we should start off with something a little more high-energy or straight-ahead and work our way to this, no?") Did the players? It doesn't really matter; it's Motian's record, period. But as a listener, you ask these questions, and if you're a certain kind of listener—conditioned, say, by hours and hours and hours of Paul Motian—you might begin to relish them, and even to feel that a given performance is remiss for not prompting them.

Anyway, I didn't hear that mystery at the aforementioned concert, didn't feel that nagging "Why in the hell?" (as Nmperign's Bhob Rainey put it so eloquently "I listen for a kind of 'What the fuck?' and follow that"). That said, the musicians I heard live really aren't about that—they may even be the antithesis of that—so I had no reason to expect it, but nevertheless, I couldn't stop thinking about it. What to do with this? Am I imposing unfairly? I guess I'm just saying that jazz which forgoes mystery might never be able to engage me as much as jazz which indulges it, invites it, lives with it. (To get specific: Andrew Hill is probably my favorite jazz musician, and I'm starting to think Paul Motian might be a close second.) Forgive me, non-mysterians like the ones anonymized in this post, but I may continue to come to your shows distracted, staring out the window at some weird, murky sight, like the pictures in my head when I hear "Jack of Clubs."